One More Time With Feeling…

Watching Moses Sumney’s NPR Tiny Desk segment was a lucky stumble-upon this week that I highly recommend hearing at least once.

I say this due to the stripped-back crafting of Sumney’s vocal range, which for lack of a better phrase froze me to my seat like a slap to the head. I was immediately reminded of an ethereal, Nina Simone figure just emoting a… gossamer beauty. It reminded me of the first time I listened to Bon Iver sing Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me/Knick of Time” solo at the piano.

And while Sumney and Justin Vernon are different musically, to hear the level of falsetto these men can conjure is… frankly unreal. And it’s not because they’re male. Rather, it’s the undeniable power of this ability. I hear these performances and am just stunned someone’s voice can make these sounds so beautifully in the first place. Simone, Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley, Mahalia Jackson, Etta James, Jonsi from Sigur Ros, and certain select others come to mind. But whatever the case, my point is these are just some of the moments that make performances timeless, and why as a music lover I never stop searching for them. Because when you find it, you know.

Plus, if you somehow still don’t know by now (and you need to!), NPR Tiny Desk performances remain one of the best music media sources anywhere. Not only have I discovered new artists like Sumney and The Lone Bellow, but musicians like Wilco, Dave Matthews, Julien Baker, Anderson .Paak, Leon Bridges, Run The Jewels, Brandi Carlile, and countless others I love have adapted to the space in new and sometimes unexpectedly great ways. T-Pain anyone?

(Yes I really said T-Pain. It’s that good. Enjoy a few others.)

There’s so much feeling injected into these performances, and it would be a bucket list goal of mine just to watch a taping. But in the meantime, get a listen to Moses Sumney. Not just because of the voice. Listen to the harp, saxophone, and twinkling guitar in the band moving around in the arrangement. You may not be a fan for life by the end, but the creativity in motion is a fascinating place to play.

2016’s best… in March

I know, I know it’s a little late in the game at this point for a Best Of albums list as we’re several weeks into March of 2017. I’m still so shocked by where the time is gone that I initially typed February into the title before I realized my mistake.

But since my last post, I feel like it’s time to do some catching up and to broadcast many of the thoughts I’ve had about the best of music from the last year. I get a lot of time to listen to albums these days since I’ve started working as a full-time news reporter with an equally full-time commute to match it. So it goes without saying, there’s certainly a lot of time for thinking.

But without further ado, let’s get into it. First up…

Honorable Mention: Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 3

1ed248049f7080c809642e513d00e853

RTJ’s latest only gets an honorable mention on this list as it’s technical wide release occurred in January of 2017. The reason it gets a mention though is, as they’ve done in the past the duo of Killer Mike and El-P dropped their latest for free early on their website in 2016 as a “Christmas Fucking Miracle” to hip hop fans everywhere.

Not only did it make for a great gift for (some) of the whole family, but in a year marred by the passing of many beloved cultural figures and a Trump presidency it couldn’t have emerged at a more needed time. RTJ 3 is a mesmerizing, unrelenting sledgehammer of an album that’s political without being preachy, fiery with a greater maturity, and as cohesively strong as anything they’ve done to date.

Plus, despite the maturity it still knows when to be an absolute smartass. You’re gonna be seeing this one on the 2017 list no question.

10. Brent Cobb, Shine on Rainy Day

48qzII9ObAjB21GiO0qV8nc2cZRXbGHg

In the last few years, super-producer and rising Nashville music icon Dave Cobb has had a massive string of hit albums with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Anderson East, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and the brilliant country music compilation Southern Family. Well if you listened thoroughly enough to Family, you might have also heard Cobb’s musician cousin Brent.

Much like Stapleton, Brent Cobb was originally more widely-known in music circles for writing songs that went on to large scale success with other country music artists. And also similar to Stapleton’s 2015 smash TravellerShine on Rainy Day is Cobb’s chance to finally shine the spotlight on himself.

Rainy Day is subtle, melodic, heart-wrenching and just oozes goddamn talent. Cobb hits the ground running from the first track, and whether he’s solo or going with a full band he’s unstoppably one of the best things happening in country music today.

Whatever he sings, I believe in every note of it.

9. Bonnie Raitt, Dig In Deep

MI0004017516

Listening to Bonnie Raitt is like going home again or sitting down for lunch with a long-unseen friend. Not just in the sense of reconnecting to the comfort of her music or the place it’s had in my life, but also in just how timeless her style and voice has remained despite the fact she’s now well into her late 60’s.

Even after 40 years of making music, Raitt still shreds like a Zen blues master on the guitar and sends chills up my spine with her husky rasp of a vocal. She hasn’t lost a step, and Dig In Deep just emphasizes that at every turn. Whether it’s covering INXS with “Need You Tonight”, breaking out the full blues brash, or bringing it down to the heart and soul of “Undone” or “The Ones We Couldn’t Be”, Bonnie Raitt is just as much a force still to be reckoned with as any time in her history.

The blues is still alive and well.

8. Butch Walker, Stay Gold

dgb135-stay-gold-1500-770x770

Butch Walker first broke into my consciousness during a joint tour with Ryan Adams in which Butch was promoting songs that later became one of my favorite albums of 2015 Afraid of Ghosts. I felt like Ghosts showed Walker in a more vulnerable position, ready to ditch the uptempo rock n roll abandon in favor of a singer songwriter who could let his songs speak without a guitar workout to guide them.

And while Stay Gold does return to Walker’s more familiar center, it’s yet another reminder of why this is what Butch does best. Songs like the title track, “Irish Exit” and “East Coast Girl” are just unhinged levels of gleeful fun, while “Descending” with country starlet Ashley Monroe still shows the songwriter Ghosts put such an emphasis on.

Cause you gotta stay gold, pony boy.

7. Bon Iver, 22, A Million 

22, A Million

Justin Vernon’s mysteriously titled (and mysteriously coded) return to the spotlight as Bon Iver after 5 years away on 22, A Million may have been as equally welcomed as rejected depending on who you ask. The record found Vernon taking the more experimental notions of prior release Bon Iver, Bon Iver and letting it become the main focus.

Gone were most of the guitars and folk-rock sentiments, replaced by an almost Kanye West-like lean towards synths, samples and a sense of struggle in one’s own skin. It takes time to grow into and listen to all the layers on 22, but I can tell you with the right ear and some patience it makes sense. Added kudos to Vernon for sampling one of the great under-appreciated Irish folk singers Fionn Regan on this record too.

6. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

98b81f8d

When A Tribe Called Quest rolled out their first record in 18 years in 2016 with We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, I was immediately intrigued enough to listen given the musical backstory as well as the hype behind their long-awaited return. As an utter newcomer still to both the rap and hip-hop world I was not at all familiar with Tribe’s musical past, but the story of it all was hook enough for me. And the hooks didn’t stop there.

We Got It From Here… keeps up hip hop’s reputation as music’s most blunt purveyors of truth. Whether political (“We The People”, “The Space Program”), pointed (“Kids”, “Melatonin”), or sentimental (“Lost Somebody”), folk music has a long way to go to reclaim its Woody Guthrie roots from the genre that’s taken Woody to the next level of protest.

Oh, and don’t miss “Solid Wall of Sound”. Wrapped in a slinky groove, an Elton John sample from Benny & The Jets and sinuous rapping lines it’s one of many standouts in this standout of a return.

5. Brian Fallon, Painkillers

8a092e8ce2dca90fa787966aed01a24a.600x600x1

Following The Gaslight Anthem’s 2014 release of Get Hurt, the album received a less than stellar reaction from fans and critics. At one time my girlfriend and I claimed we were the only people who actually liked what that record did. But still, it raised the question: did frontman Brian Fallon and the rest of the band need some time apart?

Well take time apart they did, and that led to the Butch Walker-produced Fallon solo album Painkillers. It felt like the most faithful pursuit of Fallon’s original aborted solo effort with Molly & The Zombies, as well as a truly honest expression of the loss of Fallon’s marriage that didn’t quite hit an emotional resonance on Get Hurt. And while the Springsteen elements of Gaslight still shine through (A Wonderful Life”), a Lou Reed “Pale Blue Eyes”undercurrent of gentle ambition flies here too.

I think it was the best career choice Fallon could have possibly made for himself.

4. BJ Barham, Rockingham

RockinghamCOVERJPG

Speaking of Bruce Springsteen, American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham took a slice of Springsteen’s American storyteller dirge Nebraska and adapted it in 2016 into his own realm of lovers and losers on his first solo record Rockingham. Unlike Brian Fallon and The Gaslight Anthem, Rockingham is less of a need for a break and more for a switch of tone.

It’s hard to imagine this aspect of Barham’s creativity meshing with his traditionally country-rock outfit American Aquarium, so what better place to let these songs breathe? As solo tracks songs on Rockingham are free to tell their stories with vague tracings of guitars, bass, banjo and brush drums giving the words their distance. It gives Barham free reign to become his characters and live out their stories for you in his world-weary growl, and that’s the best place to live within this record.

Its true folk music doing devastatingly strong work.

3: Hard Working Americans, Rest In Chaos

0004544300

I still consider Todd Snider to be one of the greatest artist recommendations I’ve ever been randomly granted. The lengthy catalogue of brilliantly strong music is one thing, and the on stage stories are CERTAINLY another (there’s quite a book that can fill you in on that in fact). But what I’ve also really enjoyed is Snider passing me an invitation into another genre of music: jam bands.

Of course Dave Matthews Band has helped me with that a lot already, but the Snider-helmed Hard Working Americans are right up there as well. With heavy hitters like Neal Casal, Dave Schools and Duane Trucks in tow, HWA went from a one-off covers album project debut into a full fledged, hard-hitting followup in 2016 called Rest In Chaos. This album not only rocks and knows how to jam, but are some of the closest lyricisms that touch on the collapse of Todd Snider’s recent marriage.

I mention it because I feel it fuels a greater passion here, and Rest in Chaos reaps the benefits.

Adele, 25

Adele-25

Now TECHNICALLY the album 25 had already come out by late November 2015, but it feels like Adele has remained such a part of our musical consciousness through 2016 (and into 2017) that she’s worth including one more time. Some might say that 25 is weaker than her prior albums, but I beg to differ towards the opposite. 25 not only continues to flash Adele’s startling consistency in her recorded work, but shows that she’s capable of adapting herself in ways that continue to adhere to the roots of her style.

And true, while I could see Adele play a simple instrument and croon beautifully on every record every time out, variation is the key after a point. Some fans might not see eye to eye with that, but I feel like 25 is her most appealing record to date that’s rife with hooks, piano lines, smoky sentiment, and that signature voice that could turn water into wine and back again.

And “When We Were Young”… one of the best songs in her whole catalogue. Take that to the bank.

1. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

SturgillSimpsonArt

Much like several of the other artists I covered on this list, we conclude this Top 10 for 2016 with yet another musician who experimented by taking their sound to the next level. And no one better exemplified that within this past year than Sturgill Simpson and his Grammy-nominated record A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

Written on behalf of Simpson’s still newly-born son, Sailor’s Guide feels like an almost voyeuristic look at a father trying to prepare his son for the world he still has yet to experience. And I only say voyeuristic because it does feel like such a deeply personal reveal in a style that travels far from Simpson’s country rock familiars and lands deep into string sections and horn fills. And while some fans of Simpson have expressed relief to see him ending this period of his music, I’m just glad we got to witness how truly versatile Simpson is as a musician.

Look no further if you wish to see one of Nashville’s truly great last of the outlaws. And not at all a tough choice for this year’s #1 slot.

 

Bon Iver Weaves Intricate Sonic Tapestry On Dynamic “Million”

22, A Million

When I first got wind of the band Bon Iver and frontman/figurehead Justin Vernon, it was around the time of the Bon Iver, Bon Iver record and the much-acclaimed solo piano take of Vernon’s spin on Bonnie Raitt’s classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. It was very much the For Emma, Forever Ago version of Vernon stripped down to the very roots, though I remember being puzzled at the time by this strangely ultra-high falsetto coming out of this… burly Wisconsin woodsman of a guy.

To put a long story short, I really didn’t understand Bon Iver’s rising upswing of appeal amongst the alternatively-minded people in the music community at first. I remember buying Bon Iver, Bon Iver on vinyl while on a vacation because of the rave reviews, the beauty of the cover work done by artist Gregory Euclide, and the need to just want to understand it. And the record did sit unplayed in my collection for a while. I remember looking at the lyric booklet that came with it and enjoying it’s poeticism (once I could understand what Vernon was saying, a problem I still have to this day). But it still hadn’t clicked.

Now I don’t remember the day when all the puzzle pieces finally settled into place, but once they did it was easy to appreciate Vernon’s mystique as well as his ability to say so much behind what was essentially a veil. Puzzling at his falsetto was replaced by the discovery of his early work solo and in DeYarmond Edison, which switched out curiosity for marvel at the vocal range Vernon has employed across his entire time in music. Rarely have I ever heard someone as equally capable of being a baritone as well as an uplifting falsetto.

300x300

But I digress (so much for that long story short thing). I eventually grew to admire Vernon for his sense of that aforementioned veil while still managing to relate. He was an entirely unique character tearing at the heartstrings. Being as brutally broken up as he was on For Emma as he was anthemic with bigger tracks from Bon Iver like “Towers” and opener “Perth”. Whatever he put his touch to just seemed to work.

So when it was announced that Vernon was taking a hiatus from Bon Iver-related projects and was going back into the shadows for a while, I read into it with understanding even if it was a bummer to hear. The more I listen and learn and read into the music business the more I can respect the need to take breaks. As a writer, as much fun as it is to be creative you can never force that process or try to exhaust it for all that it’s worth. That only ends up making a freeing thing that much more like a shackle (which in hearing the backstory for this album seemed to be exactly the problem and stress Vernon was running into personally).

And so that’s where Vernon retreated to for a whole five years. He would appear from time to time with singles or collaborations or an album with side project Volcano Choir, but otherwise no plans seemed on the immediate front.

bon_iverstockholm

Fast forward to this year and the sudden appearance of Bon Iver again along with live sets, new songs, and an album title. 22, A Million. A mysterious album title of mysteriously titled songs that seemed to be buried even deeper beneath…. what exactly? It was hard to say in a release that seemed to be characterized by strange symbols, mythologies, binary and hashtags (yep there’s one in there).

Well, many listens later I can tell you that it all does eventually make sense. This isn’t any season after 3 of the TV show Lost we’re dealing with here (or most any JJ Abrams project after it’s been allowed to spiral out a while). I think taking this extended break of just about five years was one of the finest moves Justin Vernon could have made, along with working at the side of guys like James Blake and Kanye West.

Yes despite the hatred many people have for West, he is regarded the way he is musically for a reason and 22, A Million showcases a lot of influence from that. He and Vernon have been tight for years (right up to JV thanking him in this album’s liner notes), and I don’t think Vernon’s deft sense of sampling, digital orchestration and autotune could have been done quite as well as it is here without that working relationship.

bon-iver

I know what you’re thinking now that you’ve read the word autotune, and no this isn’t a ridiculous viral Youtube video or pumped out pop song. As much as the use of autotune has been well overcooked since guys like rapper T-Pain emerged with it years ago, it still has a legitimacy when used from the experimental side of the fence.

Tracks like “22 (Over S??N)”, “33 “GOD””, “715 – Creeks” and many more benefit from this, with a blending of digital and organic thoughts that create a deeply gorgeous sense of contrast. At times it feels like songs are on the very verge of slipping away into collapse, or are aging as you listen to their stories. Like an old record being put on that’s just a bit warped and being played a fraction out of tune as the needle slides across it. It’s almost jarring, yet warmly welcoming as untouched banjo, saxophone and piano runs play up against corrosively echoed vocals and the hammer of pulsing bass.

The sampling is brilliant as well, with nods across the record to the likes of Stevie Nicks, Paolo Nutini, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Graham, and my personal favorite Irish folk singer Fionn Regan. To my knowledge it’s a very rare thing to even hear Regan’s name mentioned on this side of the pond despite “The End of History” being one of the most underrated folk albums of all time (seriously, look into it if you haven’t). Yet here’s Vernon sampling a line from Regan’s song “Abacus” on closing track “00000 Million”, and doing it in the most hair-raisingly perfect way to boot.

lt2hmphaifiaiikb2ltd

The song continuously gives me goosebumps every time I play it.

For some Bon Iver fans (especially those who desire another For Emma) some of these effects might prove a bit too much to bear, but that’s the thing about 22, A Million: it automatically requires patience.  Much like Wilco’s return to form on last year’s Star Wars, this isn’t an album made for digesting on the first try or song by song. It’s a complete composition unto itself, and I hope that Vernon will treat his as Wilco treated theirs and play it front to back onstage. It just doesn’t make as much sense any other way, especially with the knack many of these tracks have for slipping into and out of one another.

And it will still reward most any fans if they stick around long enough. Vernon’s folk-embracing side hasn’t disappeared from his work within Bon Iver; rather it’s become more of a cog in the machine of a greater tapestry of creative energy that’s at work here.

And wouldn’t you prefer that over just trying to pave over the dirt roads you came down in the first place? From the indication of things Vernon was not only frustrated with his sound but also his own image, so it’s a relief to hear him sounding as fresh as the time these five years have given him.

bon-iver-perform-at-the-manchester-arena-2012

I could go for paragraphs and paragraphs about what I hear out of this release every time I listen to it, but now you simply need to go listen. You’ll receive no better education than what your ears will tell you, and there’s a lot to learn on 22, A Million. Some may not be able to stick out the ride and that’s okay, but for those who can…. you’ll be in the midst of what may be the year’s best album.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑